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Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK)


The cultural identity of Torres Strait’s traditional inhabitants is expressed and maintained through Ailan Kastom (Island Custom) and Aboriginal Law/Lore – the system of knowledge, traditions, laws, protocols, and practices that maintain Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal peoples’ relationships to others and their connections to country. 

This body of knowledge has been passed down through generations by tribal leaders and Elders to heads of clans and kin through sit downs, cultural teaching, song, dance, myths, legends, art, and stories. In the Torres Strait, each Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander group has its own parliamentary and social system administered through a structure known as Kwod (Kemer Kemer Meriam, Kulkalgal, Guda Maluilgal and Maluilgal nations), or Kergne (Kaiwalagal nation) for creating and managing all of the associated processes and protocols applicable to the communal structure.

Although similar principles may exist between law and Lore/Kastom, it is important to recognise there is a distinction and Lore/Kastom, like law, can respond to change by absorbing contemporary influences and adapting to its consequences (e.g. Coming of the Light).

The enduring connections that Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal people have with their country, and their cultural heritage, may be manifested in tangible and intangible ways. Maintaining and strengthening Ailan Kastom and Aboriginal Law/Lore is vital to build community capacity to sustainably manage land and sea resources into the future.

What is already happening?

While Ailan Kastom remains relatively strong it is facing increasing pressure from modern western society and environmental and economic drivers from the local to global scales. Limited employment and housing mean most Islanders live outside the region. The passing of Elders, loss of traditional languages and disruption to traditional governance systems are key threats to Ailan Kastom and the unique governance systems, customary laws, and cultural heritage of Torres Strait Islanders. 

Torres Strait communities are among the most vulnerable to climate change, both in Australia and internationally. Rising sea levels, destructive king tides and coastal erosion have impacted cemeteries, beaches, and roads and threatened important buildings and cultural sites. Cultural connection to coral reefs and fishing are also threatened by rising sea temperatures.

A range of formal agreements have been established between the LSMU and Traditional Owner groups to confirm agreed protocols to respect and strengthen Ailan Kastom and Aboriginal Lore/Law and to follow best-practice approaches for protecting Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property (ICIP) rights. Working on Country (WOC) Plans have been developed for all outer island communities, and are in the process of being updated. All these plans incorporate goals and strategies for managing cultural as well as natural values, and are underpinned by, and reinforce, Ailan Kastom

Every inhabited island has a land and sea profile developed with Traditional Owner input. From 2021, each community will be able to update their own island profiles to consider how well cultural protocols and practices are being respected and maintained.

The number (and scale) of cultural sites that have been mapped, actively managed and restored by Rangers and community members is gradually increasing (38 in 2016, and over 400 in 2021). Although coastal sites are subject to increasing risks from rising sea levels and extreme weather events, management strategies for protecting these sites are being included in updated WOC and Indigenous Protected Area (IPA) Plans.

What could happen?

In the absence of additional protection and support, Ailan Kastom, cultural heritage and enduring connections to land and sea could erode further, potentially undermining the resilience of all land, sea, and people values. For example, the potential loss of local turtle populations (primarily due to rising temperatures) would have catastrophic impacts on important cultural practices. 

Stronger Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) programs (e.g. use of language and development of seasonal calendars), expansion of IPAs and stronger local governance for community-based ranger programs could help to revitalise and strengthen Ailan Kastom

The extension of successful compliance management initiatives in the region could reinforce and reinvigorate customary laws and governance systems.